The Strange Deal
So last Saturday I did a little yard sale at home — and if you’ve already heard me talk about this, I want to go ahead and tell you I’m sorry — but I can’t stop talking about this yard sale because of how disappointing it was. I spent so much time for so little return, and that’s mainly, I think, because the people who go to yard sales are just looking for deals. That’s the whole game. It’s all about the deals. [You know what I mean?]
Last Saturday there was this one gentleman who came and I sold him a long-sleeve henley shirt made of waffle-knit cotton and a coffee bean grinder for $1.00. That’s like four quarters. And what was fascinating was that this guy was reluctant to give me the dollar. He had to like pry his own fingers off of the dollar before he handed it to me, and then I ended up feeling bad about it — and that’s when I knew this whole thing was a mistake. I thought I was offering some deals, but apparently I’m not cut out for it. Deals can be tricky.
And that’s good to know because Jacob and Laban make a deal in our passage today. And it’s a strange deal, as we just heard from Gavin.
So I want to do just two things in the sermon today. First, I want to tell you the full story of what’s happening here with Jacob, and then second, I want us to look at a few lessons we can learn.
So “See the Story” and “Learn the Lessons.” Let’s pray.
Father, the unfolding of your word gives light, and you impart understanding to the simple. And this morning we confess that’s who we are. It is all dark for us unless you give us light. So, please open our eyes to behold wondrous things. Show us your glory. In Jesus’s name, amen.
Part One: See the Story
So we’re going to start here with the story of this passage, which we can breakdown in four parts. It goes like this:
Jacob’s house increases under Laban
Jacob flees from Laban
Jacob has a showdown with Laban
Jacob makes a covenant with Laban
I want to just walk through the story, and I’m going to try to do this quick. But overall, Jacob’s experience in these two chapters serves a greater purpose in the storyline of the Bible. That’s because what happens here with Jacob is actually a foreshadowing of the exodus that will come later in Israel’s history. The parallels between the two events are fascinating, and I’ll mention some of the parallels along the way, but let’s track with what’s going on here.
First, Jacob’s house increases under Laban.
Jacob wants to go home, but Laban wants him to stay because he knows Jacob’s prosperity has benefited him. Jacob knows that too. Jacob says to Laban in verse 30, “the Lord has has blessed you wherever I turned.” And that’s why Laban tells Jacob to name his wages. He’ll pay whatever he has to in order for Jacob to stay. Well, Jacob says: I’ll keep pasturing your flock, but in return give me every lamb that’s black and every goat that’s speckled or spotted.
It’s seems like an arbitrary classification. Jacob picks an appearance, and says he’ll take the part of the flock that looks a certain way. And Laban agrees, but then he goes behind Jacob’s back and he removes all of the sheep and goats that look the way Jacob described. So basically, according to their deal, Laban leaves Jacob nothing.
But then Jacob, in verse 37, starts breeding the flock, and he does this thing with sticks that somehow make the animals produce offspring that are speckled, spotted, and black, which is exactly the kind he asked for. And he maneuvered it all in such a way that all the stronger flock belong to him, and all the feebler belong to Laban, according to their deal. And we don’t see any mention in the text here that this being dirty. Verse 43 just concludes:
Thus the man increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys.
Which means Jacob prospered under Laban, despite Laban.
Second, Jacob flees Laban.
This is Chapter 31. It’s not belong before Laban’s sons, and Laban himself, resent the prosperity of Jacob. The do not like that Jacob has increased in wealth, and verse 2 says that “Laban did not regard [Jacob] with favor as before.”
And this is something that we’re going to see again. In the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel are in the land of Egypt, away from their home because of a famine, and we see right away in Exodus that the people of Israel increased greatly, and the Egyptians did not like that.
So Laban and his sons are foreshadowing the Egyptians here, and then God speaks to Jacob in verse 3 and says, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.” Which is exactly what Jacob already wanted to do in verse 25.
So Jacob sends for Rachel and Leah, and he tells them the plan. He says: “Hey, we’re getting out of here because God said so.”
And Rachel and Leah agree, and so they get all their stuff and they leave in a hurry, without even telling Laban. Verse 20 says that Jacob tricked Laban by not telling him they were leaving. Laban finds out three days later, and verse 23 says that Laban assembled his kinsmen and pursued Jacob.
And that’s the same language used with Pharaoh after the people of Israel escaped from Egypt. Laban has basically formed an army, and like Pharaoh did Moses and the people of Israel, Laban is chasing down Jacob and his family, but in verse 24 God comes to Laban in a dream and tells him not to say anything to Jacob: “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”
And then finally, in verse 25, Laban catches up with Jacob.
Third, Jacob has a showdown with Laban.
Laban is aggressive right away, and it looks like to me he doesn’t listen to what God told him — because he says something to Jacob. Laban interrogates Jacob on why he left in such a hurry, and then he gives a subtle threat. Laban says to Jacob in verse 29, surrounded by his army: “It is in my power to do you harm.” In other words, I could destroy you — but your God told me in a dream to leave you alone.
It’s like he’s saying: You better be glad your God bailed you out.
Then he says: Jacob, okay, look, I understand that you wanted to go home, but why did you steal my gods.
And this is another weird part of this whole story. See, as Jacob and Rachel and Leah and their whole family were in a hurry to leave Laban, for some reason, Rachel stole Laban’s household gods.
You guys know the movie Home Alone? Do you remember that at the beginning of the movie, the whole family overslept and they were running late for the airport, and everybody is just running around frantically? Imagine that. That’s what is happening here, except that instead of forgetting Kevin like the movie, Rachel snags Laban’s household gods, and she put them in the camel’s saddle that she was sitting on. And nobody knew she did this, the text says. [See Endnote 1]
So when Laban his accusing Jacob here of stealing the gods, Jacob of course denies it, and he says: Go ahead and search everything. We don’t have your gods. And in fact, if you find them on somebody that person will die.
Jacob doesn’t know what Rachel did, which means that the story this brings some dramatic irony. We know as the readers that Rachel has the gods, but Jacob doesn’t know, and Laban is looking for them — and so we’re on the edge of our seats just waiting for Laban to find them. And he looks everywhere, in Leahs’ tent, in Rachel’s tent. And he can’t find them.
Then he comes to Rachel, who is sitting on the camel. She is sitting on the saddle where she hid the gods, and she tells Laban in verse 35 that she can’t get up from the saddle for him to search it because the “way of women is upon me” — which is the Hebrew way of saying that it’s her time of the month. And again, this is strange, but it works. Laban doesn’t find the gods. And when he doesn’t find the gods, Jacob goes off the rails on Laban. Verse 36 says, “Then Jacob became angry and berated Laban.”
Jacobs just runs through the last 20 years of working for Laban, and he cites all the ways that Laban has mistreated him, and Jacob credits God as the one who has made all the difference. The Lord has been with Jacob. That’s the only explanation for how he’s made it and why he’s blessed.
Fourth, Jacob makes a covenant with Laban.
It’s actually Laban who initiates the covenant in verse 43. He wants to make a peace treaty with Jacob, which is very telling. Although Laban tried to flex his power on Jacob in verse 29, he knows that Jacob is a force to be reckoned with because of Jacob’s God. A big part of this showdown between the two men was Jacob recounting all the ways that God had looked out for him, and it seems like Laban got the point. And so he concedes.
And this covenant means a final break between these two families. The covenant is not about a partnership, but it’s about both families keeping to themselves. And we can see a contrast between the two families. They call the place of the covenant different names; they speak different languages; and they worship different deities, and so they’re done. Laban departs and goes home. He finally leaves Jacob alone like God told him to at the start, and that finishes Chapter 31. That’s the story.
That’s Part One.
Now, what can we learn from all this? There’s a lot going on here, but I want to focus on three lessons. So this is Part Two.
Part Two: Learn the Lessons
This story is teaching us truths about God. That’s the point. Here are three things we learn:
God is sovereign in a world full of Labans.
God keeps his promises in our details.
God sees every affliction.
1. God is patient with a world full of Labans.
There is a truth that we have to come to grips with in this story. It’s that we know God is in control and he means good for Jacob, and at the same time there is such a person as Laban.
Laban is the quintessential worldly man. He’s greedy and weaselly. He’s a pagan and a swindler. He has oppressed and mistreated Jacob, and he’s gotten rich off of him. He only looks out for himself at Jacob’s cost, and it has all happened on God’s watch.
And God does not take him out, which he could have done. When Laban was pursuing Jacob after Jacob fled, God could have designed the whole thing so that they all come to a big sea, and God could have parted the sea for Jacob and his family to cross, and then when Laban and his army tried to cross God could have just thrown the sea back on top of them. God could have done it that way — and we know that because God does do it that way later.
But here, in this story, God does not destroy Laban, but instead, he lets Laban make an agreement with Jacob; he lets Laban gain wealth off of Jacob; and maybe the strangest of all, God speaks directly to Laban twice. Which is hard to wrap our minds around.
We don’t see God speaking at all in Chapter 30. He has not spoken to Jacob or Rachel or Leah or any of Jacob’s 11 sons, but we read in verse 27 that God has communicated with Laban through divination, which means sorcery. Apparently, the pagan Laban was doing some kind of crystal ball thing, probably some kind of “get rich quick” stunt, and somehow in that he gets a message from Yahweh that his wealth is because of Jacob.
And then in Chapter 31, verse 24, God comes directly to Laban in a dream and tells him to leave Jacob alone — and that wasn’t just to protect Jacob; that was God being merciful to Laban. Because God did not do that for Pharaoh.
So what’s happening here? Why does God do it this way?
And the truth is: I don’t know.
I don’t know exactly why God does it this way, but it shows us the depths of God’s common grace. Jesus teaches us this truth in the Gospels. He says that the Father “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). Which is just stunning. We should marvel at this truth:
Today, right now, in this moment, God is making the sun shine on people who despise him. There are people in this world, in this city, who hate and blaspheme God, and they’re alive right now because God gives them air and food. There are people in this city who have gained wealth by mistreating God’s people, and they kick their feet up like all is well because God lets them.
And it won’t always be this way, of course, but it’s this way right now because God is patient — because God is good. And this is a goodness that moves us. The apostle Peter grapples with this truth in the New Testament, in 2 Peter 3, and he tells us there that God’s patience isn’t because God is slack, but it’s because God is giving more time for the ungodly to repent (see 2 Peter 3:8–10).
God is so patient and so good, and anybody and everybody benefits from that. God is patient with a world full of Labans.
Here’s the second thing we learn.
2. God keeps his promises in our details.
I think this is the main idea that comes through when we look at the Chapters 30 and 31 side by side. Chapter 31 is sort of the like the theological commentary on Jacob’s actions in Chapter 30.
I want to compare the chapters, but first we need to start with the result. At the end of the day, what we see in both chapters is that Jacob is blessed. Chapter 30, verse 43 ends with a note about Jacob’s prosperity. And then in Chapter 31, the prosperity and blessings of Jacob are mentioned at least five times (31:5, 7, 9–10, 13, 42). That’s what the chapters have in common. What’s different is the perspective on this blessing.
In Chapter 30 all we see is the hustle of Jacob. There is no mention of God’s work. After Laban tricks Jacob and takes away all the lambs and goats that were supposed to belong to Jacob, Jacob is left with nothing, and he seems to be completely unfazed but it. He doesn’t complain. Instead, he has his own kind of breeding trick, which makes no sense to us. Apparently it was some kind of folksy shepherd-hack. Verse 37 says that Jacob takes some fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees, and he peels the sticks to expose the white of the bark, and then he sets them in front of where the lambs and goats drink water because that’s also where they breed. And he made sure to have the sticks out when the stronger of the flock were breeding, so that the feebler of the flock would belong to Laban. And verse 43 says, “Thus the man increased greatly.”
If we just had Chapter 30, we’d say that Jacob’s prosperity was because of his own work. It’s because he was a shrewd hustler, because he set up the sticks.
But then in Chapter 31, when Jacob is talking about how blessed he is, he says,
verse 5, “the God of my father has been with me.”
verse 7, “God did not permit [Laban] to harm me.”
verse 9, “God has taken away the livestock of [Laban] and given them to me.” And then he explains that the angel of God came to him in a dream and say, “Lift your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you.”
verse 42, Jacob says to Laban, “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed.”
So Jacob is clear that God gets the credit for his prosperity. God has kept the promises he made to Jacob back in Chapter 28. God has been with him; God has increased his house; God has blessed him. And we should expect this — we know that the promise of Abraham has been handed to Jacob.
But then we still have Chapter 30. At one level the only reason Jacob was not sent away empty-handed is because of the sticks thing he does in Chapter 30. But in Chapter 31 Jacobs says the only reason he’s not empty-handed is because of God. So which is it?
Is Jacob’s prosperity because of what he does in Chapter 30 or because of what he says in Chapter 31?
Is Jacob’s blessings because of his own work, or is it because of God’s promises?
And the answer is that the blessings on Jacob are because of God’s promises in and through his work. And I mean down into the details of his work. The text shows us details here. Jacob is taking certain kinds of sticks, and he’s peeling them a certain kind of way, and he’s positioning them just right over by the water, and somehow at the same time that Jacob is messing with these sticks in very particular ways, God is fulfilling his promises. The promises of God are at work for Jacob down in the details of him setting up these sticks.
And this is important for us because a lot of times in life it can feel like all we ever do is set up sticks.
Last Saturday I did a yard sale. I don’t if you heard, but I wasted ten hours of my life doing a yard sale. I made $60, and immediately spent over half of that at Chipotle to feed my family, and then Monday morning I had to pay Ramsey County $50 to dump the stuff we didn’t sell. So do the math; it didn’t work out.
And so Monday the back of my truck was full, and I backed up to this big dumpster, and I almost had everything out o the truck and I ready to leave, but then I accidentally shattered an 18x24 glass frame in the bed of my truck. And it shattered practically into the rice, except it was jagged and sharp and all in the back of my truck, and I knew I had to get it out. The kids would step on it. Or I’d get holes in my tires. I’ve got to get this out.
And so I started picking up these little pieces of glass, one at a time, carefully throwing them in this dumpster. And I got a couple minutes into doing this, and it just felt completely absurd. I would have much rather been collecting shells or playing softball, but instead I was picking up this glass. I was dealing with the details of this glass and I didn’t want to be there — and then I just felt the love of God.
It occurred to me that somehow, even here in these tiny details, that in this moment of picking up glass, all the promises of God to me are true and active and happening in real time.
He will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:9) — true right now.
But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head (Psalm 3:3) — true right now.
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10) — true right now.
This I know, that God is for me. In God whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust, I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me? (Psalm 56:9–11) — true right now.
Cast your burden on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved (Psalm 55:22) — true right now.
The promises of God to us are promises that he keeps in our details. God is at work in the tiniest things you do, whether that means picking up glass or setting up sticks. So brothers and sisters, take heart and keep on with the tiny things.
3. God sees every affliction.
This point is so important in the story that we actually read it twice in Chapter 31. In verse 12, God tells Jacob in a dream, “for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you.” And then in verse 43, Jacob says to Laban, “God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands…”
God is a God who sees. This is something that we’ve already learned in Genesis. It was way back in Chapter 16 when Sarah mistreated Hagar. Remember that in that story, Hagar was treated harshly by Sarah, and so Hagar was trying to flee, and God came to Hagar and told her that he had listened to her affliction. And Genesis 16:13 says,
So [Hagar] called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.
And what’s especially fascinating about this instance in Genesis 16 is the Hagar is outside the covenant of promise. This is not Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. This is a servant girl who is left on her own, and the Bible tells us that God sees her. God looks after her — just like he does for Jacob in Genesis 31. Which means: whoever you are God sees your hardship. God is the God who sees every affliction. God is the God who gives special attention to every kind of suffering.
Whatever it is you’re going through, whether it’s some big external hardship at the hands of someone else, or whether it’s a deep, personal struggle on the inside, God sees you. God sees your affliction. And he does even more than that.
God is not just the God who sees your affliction, but he is the God who bears your affliction. This is the God who knows what it’s like to be in your shoes because this is the God who came here and put on your humanity.
When Jesus, the Son of God, became a man, he immersed himself in the human experience, and somehow, in someway, wherever it is that you are, Jesus understands.
Jesus knows where you’re at, not just because he sees, but because he’s been there, and he has taken that affliction upon himself. When Jesus died on the cross for you, he died to save you from every enemy against your soul. And he made a deal. Some of this deal we get now, and some of this deal we get later, but it’s the same deal. Jesus died to give us:
Mercy for judgment
righteousness for sin
life for death
wholeness for brokenness
honor for shame
beauty for ashes
laughter for tears
singing for sorrow
blessing for affliction
Jesus died for you to make that deal. Will you trade with him?
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money come, buy and eat! To the one who is thirsty, take the water of life without price! (Isaiah 55:1; Revelation 22:17)
You bring your nothing. He will give you everything.
That is the great exchange offered to us in the gospel. And that is the amazing grace that we remember each week at this Table.
Each week as we take the bread and cup, we remember all the blessings of God given to us because of Jesus. We were the guilty, but now we are forgiven; we were the dirty, but now we are pure; we were outcasts, but now we are the sons and daughters of God.
And when we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are saying: Amen to that. Thank you, Jesus.
What’s up with Rachel stealing the household gods?
The household gods represented wealth to Laban. Rachel stealing the gods was like Israel plundering the Egyptians in Exodus. That she was sitting on them during menstruation (when she was ceremonially unclean) shows that she didn't venerate them. It was a move of faith and confidence in YHWH. Her sitting on the "gods" was a sign of triumph — YHWH over the pagan gods.